Science - November 17, 2005

Rivo test detects oil spillers

Which ship caused this oil slick? An analysis technique developed by the Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research (Rivo) can help answer this question. The oil industry is also interested as the technique can help to determine oil quality.

The Rivo researchers use gas chromatography to determine the composition of a mixture by evaporating it and separating the chemical components. Rivo refined the technique to determine the composition of oil mixtures and developed equipment and software to make the technique usable for routine measurements. The technique is called multidimensional gas chromatography.

Professor of Analytical Environmental Chemistry, Jacob de Boer, expects a growing stream of assignments and not only from the oil industry, which already contributes a few percent to the Rivo research budget. An interesting application for the new technique is research on oil spillages at sea. Detailed analysis of spilled oil makes it possible to determine which ship was responsible. ‘In oil samples taken from a beach or from fish, the ‘peak pattern’ changes as a result of the effects of wind and weather, making it difficult to compare them with the oil in the ship’s hold. The proportions of certain substances, however, do not change, for example of pristane and phytane. These substances are easy to detect using multi-dimensional gas chromatography.’ By comparing the ‘finger print’ of an oil slick with those from various ships it should be possible to track down the culprit.

This is likely to be interesting to environmental organisations that campaign for a cleaner sea, and institutes such as the Dutch coastal research institute Rikz, as well as for government forensics research. De Boer: ‘We have already started to do regular research assignments for oil companies including EXXON and Conoco-Phillips, as well as Concawe, the European oil industry’s research association for environment, health and safety. We are working together with Shell Global Solutions to refine the gas chromatography technique.’ / HB

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